Some leaders (and their spouses) prefer plush exclusive private jets for travel; other leaders have a weakness for luxury cars. But Francis, the Bishop of Rome, serious about reaching out to the poor, ‘downgraded’ to a five-year-old blue Ford Focus as his choice of official car.
The car is reportedly “a European hatchback that’s no newer than 2008, with few amenities, no gilded exterior markings and even cloth seats”. That is a far cry from the Mercedes-based ‘popemobile’ that his predecessor used.
And when Francis returned from Brazil last year after a hugely successful Latin American trip, he did not choose to fly in a private jet, as some political leaders are prone to. Instead, he travelled in an Alitalia plane – in which he informally answered at length questions posed by a group of accompanying journalists.
I think Francis understands the importance of a leader in his position synchronising his words (he wants the Church to be more in touch with the poor) with his lifestyle. You know, cakap mesti serupa bikin (Gandhi recognised this too.) Especially when Francis’ audience consists of billions of people struggling to cope with everyday stress from poverty, rising household debt and the soaring cost of living.
It is not just about the savings in cost that can be achieved by choosing these simpler options; it is also about the message of solidarity it sends out. Ordinary folks looking in from the outside will think, “Hey, this guy is on our side. He understands what we are going through.”
Astonishing numbers of Christians and others, including atheists, have responded to Francis’ gestures, which they sense are more than public relations gimmicks, for they have added a ring of authenticity to his words. Since his election as Bishop of Rome in March 2013, Francis has reportedly “attracted almost triple the number of visitors that gathered to watch former Pope Benedict XVI speak at Vatican City in the whole of 2012”. There’s a lesson in there, don’t you think?